or all its wealth of data, skillful argumentation, and scope, The Bell Curve is a narrow and
deeply flawed book. Murray and Herrnstein have fallen prey to a methodological fetishism that prevents them from adequately considering
alternative, equally plausible inferences that can be drawn from the studies they marshal to buttress their conclusions.
The argument of The Bell Curve is carried out on two distinct, though in the authors' minds interrelated, levels. On the first, they discuss issues related to the rise of a "cognitive elite," a trend characteristic of all industrial societies, whose knowledge-driven economies offer fewer and fewer employment opportunities for people unable to operate in the type of occupations such economies require. On the second level, they argue that a more or less permanent underclass, characterized by the prevalence of low cognitive ability, is becoming a fixture of American society.
Both observations have been discussed here and abroad for some time. But by adding the dimension of race, a factor peculiar to American society, The Bell Curve carries the discussion in new directions. Race-determined cognitive ability, they argue, is the underlying reality driving a grisly sorting process that is dividing the nation. Caught in an epistemological paradigm in which psychological operations are reduced to genetic ones, they suggest that biology is destiny. No amount of camouflage or public and private efforts to create a level playing field, they imply, can prevent the inexorable slide of African-Americans into a cognitive caste.
The question is not whether Murray and Herrnstein's argument is "racist"; the question is whether the empirically measured differences among racial groups reflect "intelligence." The tests do indeed measure something, but it is not "intelligence." Rather, they measure what I have called "modern consciousness," a set of intellectual skills that are particularly relevant to operating in the highly specialized worlds of modern technology and rationalistically organized bureaucracies. These core institutions of modern society are produced by, and in turn produce, peculiarly modern cognitive styles: the ability to operate on high levels of abstraction; to break reality down analytically into components; to keep multiple relationships in mind simultaneously; and, especially significant for IQ testing, to relate present tasks to possible future consequences. This last skill, by definition, can be achieved only on the basis of past experiences and habits of thought that individuals acqire during the earliest period of socialization, when a basic matrix of cognition develops.
Once one is willing to entertain this alternative explanation for the bulk of the data presented in this book, many things fall into place: the well-documented phenomenon of globally rising test scores as modernization progresses and, similarly, the "leveling off" of rising SAT scores among the most gifted students in already modernized countries; the much-noted capacity of East Asian students to outscore non-East Asians on the non-verbal part of IQ tests, which may be understood as attesting to the "cultural capital" of East Asians rather than their genetic superiority; the measured differences in IQ among siblings, known as the birth-order effect; the shift in scores when an individual moves from a rural to an urban setting or from one social class to another. The list could be expanded.
Murray and Herrnstein's methodological fixation blinds them to a different way of understanding these phenomena. The deficiency is especially conspicuous in their interpretation of the relatively low scores of African-Americans as a group. While everyone would agree that some individuals are smarter than others and that IQ is not as malleable as some have argued in the past, there is good evidence that socialization practices (particularly in the early years) and factors of family structure and interaction, of neighborhood and religion, help shape an individual's cognitive structure. If one looks at the data presented in this book from the "modern consciousness" analytical framework, it becomes clear that African-Americans, as a group, continue to lead lives distant from the centers of modernity. Hence they have not yet been fully initiated into the habits of thought underpinning the operations of sophisticated technologies and organizational structures. Yet there is no reason to suppose that this could not be changed through the practices that help form modern consciousness.
When a methodological fetishism of the dimension manifested in this book permeates the interpretation of individuals, groups, and social life as a whole, the conclusions about what is to be done may indeed look like those reached by Murray and Herrnstein. The authors conjure up a future strangely at odds with everything I know both of them cherish, a future in which human efforts and virtues become ever more insignificant. What remains is the triumph of pure intelligence. Looking at the future from the perspective I propose, however, one would ask whether it is not likely that we, as a society, will come to put a premium on human qualities that have less to do with formal intelligence than with an individual's capacity for, say, empathy, a sense of humor, or religious commitment. What type of individuals, for example, will staff the institutions of elder care that demography will increasingly require? To put it succinctly: when I am about to die of Alzheimer's, I emphatically do not wish to be taken care of by Charles Murray.
The authors appear to believe sincerely that when everyone knows his "place" in society (i.e., when individuals and groups accept their genetic limitations), everything will be in balance. Yet a reliance upon IQ as the ultimate arbiter in social policy could well make for sloth and frivolity among all classes, with those at the top smugly certain that they belong there, while the rest assume there is no point in making any effort at all. If there is one thing more disturbing than a ruling class based on privilege, it is a ruling class that believes it deserves its position by virtue of its intelligence. The one hopeful element of this scenario is that the cognitive elite, in its self-satisfied arrogance, would become so lazy that its regime would not last long.
The implications of this book for American conservatives are, to my mind, quite simple. The worst thing for conservatives to do would be to become identified with the Murray--Herrnstein position. The "balkanization from the Left" that conservatives have so valiantly fought for these past decades would be overshadowed by a specter of technological totalitarianism hardly consonant with visions of liberty and democracy.